Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The book and the tower

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The Red Book by Carl Jung

Over the last few days, I’ve been browsing with great interest through The Red Book of the psychiatrist Carl Jung, the massive illuminated folio that he labored over in private for more than fifteen years, and which was finally published in a handsome volume from W.W. Norton. As someone who has long been interested in learning more about Jung without quite knowing where to start, I’ve found The Red Book to be an ideal entry point, largely because the story of its own origin and development aligns with many of my own thoughts on creativity. It arose out of a long period of thought and introspection centering on one question: “What myth are you living?” Jung notes that he didn’t know the answer at first, and he continues:

So, in the most natural way, I took it upon myself to get to know “my” myth, and I regarded this as the task of tasks, for—so I told myself—how could I, when treating my patients, make due allowance for the personal factor, for my personal equation, which is yet so necessary for a knowledge of the other person, if I was unconscious of it? I simply had to know what unconscious or preconscious myth was forming me, from what rhizome I sprang.

The result was The Red Book, an unforgettable collection of illustrations and calligraphic texts expanding on Jung’s dreams and visions. (It currently retails for the daunting price of $145, although it should be available at most larger public and university libraries, which is where I found my copy.) When I leaf through it, it feels both like a look backward at such works as The Book of Kells and a prediction of the likes of the Codex Seraphinianus, but would be a mistake to read it as solely an obsessive work of borderline mysticism. In fact, as the lines I’ve quoted above indicate, its motivation was intensely practical. While Jung was working out his visions in private, he was also seeing patients as a practicing psychiatrist, and the work he produced was intended to serve as a kind of catalog or incursion into his own unconscious, as well as an intuitive form of exploration and meditation. For a man whose legacy and career rested on a sustained engagement with his own inner life and those of others, few projects could be more important or pragmatic, and the result served as a source of inspiration for his published books and papers. As Jung himself says: “The years…when I pursued the inner images, were the most important time of my life. Everything else is to be derived from this.”

Bollingen Tower

The Red Book can best be understood, then, as an elaborate intermediate stage in a singular creative process. Intuition and vision came first, followed by an extended phase of development that made equal time for serendipity and meticulous work. Jung went through countless drafts of the text for each page and did careful preparatory drawings for the illustrations, which comes as no surprise: a work as detailed and coherent as this doesn’t emerge out of nothing. As any writer or artist can testify, it’s in the selfless, almost detached process of mechanical perfection—drawing the grid, laying out the design, refining the raw material until the result is both aesthetically pleasing and formally sound—that we make our greatest discoveries. Jung already kept journals of his dreams and visions, but to drill down to their fundamental meaning and transform them into something with a wider application, something more was required. Hence this almost absurdly intricate work of illumination, which unfolded for his own benefit while nourishing ideas intended for a wider audience. (On a much lower level, I’m reminded of how I try to make the notes and mind maps for my own stories look nice for their own sake. No one else will ever see these preparatory stages, but I’d like to think that the effort pays off in the finished product.)

And it’s no accident that Jung’s great work of exploration took a form requiring considerable visual, manual, and conceptual patience, a work of the hand and eye as much of the mind. Later, he purchased a tract of land in Bollingen, on the shores of Lake Zurich, where he slowly built a castle of stone in his retirement, returning on a larger scale to the constructions of blocks that he enjoyed as a child. When you spend your life exploring the inner self, it’s easy to neglect the senses, which is why it can be so helpful to incorporate processes that require all parts of one’s body and personality. (At around the time Jung was building his castle, Winston Churchill was constructing walls on his property for much the same reason: an ideal day, he said, would include “the laying of hundreds of bricks.”) The Red Book is an expression of the same underlying need as Bollingen Tower, a form of thought that requires the artist to be dextrous and untiring as well as intelligent and intuitive. If the result often goes unseen—or, in Jung’s case, unpublished for decades after his death—the effects of such solitary, loving work can have greater reverberations than more seemingly practical pursuits. And if we’re trying to discover, as Jung was, what kind of myth we’re all living, the act of illumination often works both ways.

Written by nevalalee

June 9, 2014 at 9:37 am

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